Nigel Farage profile: The man who changed British politics returns to the fray

Nigel Farage is back. Arguably the most influential politician of his generation, he hasn’t exactly put his feet up since the 2019 election but – by his standards – has resisted the fray.

His announcement to run to be an MP set the pulses of Brexit supporters racing and potentially plunged Rishi Sunak into a death spiral.

At the age of 60, Mr Farage has declared himself up for another scrap. Mr Sunak is the big loser.

Last time around, his Brexit Party stood candidates down in Tory-held seats, paving the way for Boris Johnson’s landslide win.

This time the party – remodelled as Reform UK – is going toe to toe with Conservatives in constituencies they hope to cling onto.

On June 13, a YouGov poll suggested for the first time that Reform had overtaken the Conservatives, prompting Mr Farage to declare: “We are now the opposition”.

Nigel Farage
Nigel Farage arrives at the Glaziers Hall in London ahead of announcing that he will stand in the general election - Tolga Akmen/Shutterstock

Mr Farage is emerging from five years of broadcasting – first as the host of the Nigel Farage Show on LBC radio and latterly as prime time host of his eponymous TV show on GB News – to put himself at the mercy of the electorate once more.

That is if you don’t include ITV’s I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out Of Here! on which he appeared in December last year, coming third behind a reality TV star from Made in Chelsea. Mr Sunak may take heart that Mr Farage couldn’t even win that.

He has won EU elections – but stood seven times for a seat in the House of Commons, and lost seven times. His influence shouldn’t be ignored because of those stats alone.

NatWest thought his views so pernicious that Coutts, the bank of choice of the Royal family, which is a subsidiary of NatWest, concluded that he was too toxic to allow him to continue to possess an account.

Now he’s back on the campaign trail, knocking on doors in his trademark mustard-coloured trousers and tweed jacket. It’s only a matter of time before the fedora gets a dusting down, alongside the inevitable photo opportunity of him in a pub with a pint.

The public – or at least a large chunk of it – loves him for it. Mr Sunak can only dream of connecting with the electorate in a way that Boris Johnson had and he doesn’t.

Nigel Farage has a pint after Ukip made gains in the 2013 local elections
Nigel Farage has a pint after Ukip made gains in the 2013 local elections - Olivia Harris/Reuters

Always controversial  and often an entertainer, it was in June 2016 that Mr Farage genuinely became a man who altered the course of history.

“Dare to dream that the dawn is breaking on an independent United Kingdom,” he declared on June 24 2016. The time was 4.01am and he was addressing the Leave.EU party. “This, if the predictions now are right, this will be a victory for real people, a victory for ordinary people, a victory for decent people.”

Two months later, at a presidential campaign rally in Mississippi, Donald Trump introduced him to thousands of supporters as “Mr Brexit”.

For the charismatic former City trader, it was surely the perfect description. And yet by December 2019, on the eve of the last election, Mr Farage appeared to cut an angry, somewhat tortured figure. His home life appeared messy too. Despite seemingly living in the public glare, his private life has remained largely private, but there have been snippets.

He has been married twice and has two children with his second wife Kirsten Mehr, a German national, although in 2017 she released a statement to the Press Association saying that they were living “separate lives” and that he “moved out of the family home a while ago”.

A month later, he described himself in a BBC interview as “53, separated, skint”, citing the ardour of campaigning for his domestic malaise.

By the time of the 2019 election, Mr Johnson, who has in some ways always been that bit more colourful than Mr Farage (his love life has always been messy) had stolen his thunder and supporters, and donors were deserting his Brexit Party.

“I think Nigel screwed up,” said Mark Francois, a senior Tory MP and member of the European Research Group, at the start of the campaign. “Nigel is a very talented politician, but anyone who works with him will tell you he’s often his own worst enemy, and his ego has got the better of him.”

Time will tell if that’s still true. This time round could be a wipeout for the Conservatives, and Mr Farage, a Tory since the age of 14, will be causing a chunk of the damage.

To tell the Farage story is to essentially unravel a love of the Conservatives that has gone unrequited. He left the party in 1992 at the age of 28 in disgust after John Major signed Britain up to the Maastricht treaty and the “ever closer union” it demanded. He helped found Ukip the following year.

One of his early hits came in 2005 when he successfully orchestrated a vote of no confidence in Jose Manuel Barroso, the EU Commission president.

Mr Barroso had spent a week on the yacht of the Greek shipping billionaire Spiros Latsis a month before the Commission, under Romano Prodi, the previous president, approved 10.3 million euros of state aid for the tycoon’s company.

Mr Barosso – a “communist or Maoist or whatever”, according to Mr Farage – survived the vote after insisting there was no conflict of interest as Mr Latsis was an old friend from university.

However, the Ukip MEP had announced himself as an irreverent and fearless critic of EU power. In the same year, he bearded Tony Blair in front of the European Parliament for his negotiation of the bloc’s budget, telling him: “Your only real achievement is that Britain is now isolated. We are now completely alone within the European Union.”

The then prime minister replied: “This is 2005, not 1945. These are our partners, our colleagues and our future lies in Europe.”

In 2008, Mr Farage ruffled feathers in both Brussels and London as the only MEP not to join a standing ovation for the Prince of Wales following a speech on climate change.

Describing the Prince’s advisers as “naive and foolish at best”, he said: “It would have been better for the country he wants to rule one day if he had stayed home and tried to persuade Gordon Brown to give the people the promised referendum on the Treaty of Lisbon.”

However, these incidents can be seen as mere warm-ups for Mr Farage’s mauling of Herman Van Rompuy in 2010.

The former Belgian prime minister had been named the first long-term president of the European Council, a post some had argued should be filled by a high-profile figure capable of “stopping the traffic” in foreign capitals.

Mr Farage was not impressed. Bawling at Mr Van Rompuy as if across a crowded pub, he said: “You have the charisma of a damp rag and the appearance of a low-grade bank clerk – and the question I want to ask you is who are you? I’d never heard of you. Nobody in Europe had ever heard of you.”

Aided by the advent of social media, videos of these speeches were becoming increasingly widely viewed.

In 2009 Mr Farage had given up the Ukip leadership, held since 2006, to stand in the then Speaker John Bercow’s Buckingham seat in the 2010 general election.

On polling day morning he climbed into a tiny two-seater PZL-104 Wilga aircraft – “basically a tractor with wings” – to fly a Ukip banner around the constituency. Shortly after take-off, the cable got caught in the tailplane and the aircraft plunged.

“It’s strange,” he recalled. “Initially you’re filled with fear, and as the ground rushes up a sense of resignation, a kind of feeling of well, if this is it, let’s hope it’s all over quickly.”

Mr Farage survived the crash but suffered a broken sternum, ribs and a punctured lung. He was photographed, bruised and bloodied, being dragged from the wreckage.

Nigel Farage is helped from the wreckage moments after the 2010 plane crash
Nigel Farage is helped from the wreckage moments after the 2010 plane crash - INS

Although by far the most dramatic, the incident was another brush with death. He had suffered serious head and leg injuries after being struck by a car during a night out in 1985, and survived testicular cancer a year later.

“I consider myself, ever since that moment, very, very lucky to be alive,” he said following the Buckingham crash. “If, before that crash, in politics I was unafraid to take on the establishment, since that day I’ve been fearless.”

This will have come as no surprise to Mr Farage’s former teachers at Dulwich College, the south London private school he attended from 1975.

Ironically for a man perceived to be of the Right, he credits his ability to “go up to anyone and have a conversation” to a Labour policy, the so-called “Dulwich Experiment”, which saw the fees of some pupils paid by local councils.

It enabled not only a diverse ethnic mix, but also a wide variety of socio-economic backgrounds, where middle class sons of stock-brokers from the Kent suburbs – as was Mr Farage – rubbed shoulders with the children of “coal merchants from Penge”.

Identified early on as a “wind-up merchant”, he was told by careers master JG Dewes, the former England cricketer, to become an auctioneer.

“He must have spotted that I was quite ballsy, probably good on a platform, unafraid of the limelight, a bit noisy, and good at selling things,” said Mr Farage.

Nigel Farage
Farage was told by careers master JG Dewes, the former England cricketer, to become an auctioneer - Matt Cardy/Getty

By 2010 the British public were beginning to notice this, too. Although he came only third in Buckingham, Mr Farage’s profile was building.

After years of slick, staged-managed centre-ground politics under Tony Blair and then David Cameron, there seemed a growing fascination in this brash outsider who campaigned in a flat cap and corduroys and relaxed with a pint and a cigarette.

The leader of Ukip once more, Mr Farage was on the march and Mr Cameron was looking over his shoulder.

Despite Mr Cameron’s January 2013 Bloomberg speech, in which he promised an in-out referendum should the Tories win the next election, in May that year 116 Conservative MPs backed an amendment to the Queen’s Speech expressing regret over the absence of a Referendum Bill in the Government’s forthcoming legislative programme.

A senior Cameron ally – rumoured to be Lord Feldman, the party chairman – was subsequently overheard saying that the MPs had only rebelled “because the associations tell them to and the associations are all mad, swivel-eyed loons”.

Mr Farage lost no time in tweeting: “If you are a Conservative supporter who believes in Ukip ideas, then your party hates you. Come and join us.” Many were.

In the same month, Ukip won 23 per cent of the vote in the local elections, taking 147 council seats and finishing just two points behind the governing Conservatives.

Mobbed by well-wishers in the Marquis of Granby, his favourite Westminster pub, Mr Farage described the result as a “sea change” in British politics.

“Something really fundamental has happened here,” he told The Telegraph, going on to describe the result as Ukip’s “first substantial step towards a party that can credibly win seats at Westminster”.

The following year, Ukip came first among UK parties in the EU Parliament elections, the first time a party other than the Conservatives or Labour had won the popular vote in a nationwide election since 1906.

Hailing the result, Mr Farage said: “It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that we could get enough MPs to hold the balance of power.”

Later that year, the party gained its first two MPs in the form of Douglas Carswell and Mark Reckless, who had quit the Tories and won by-elections for Ukip.

2015 was supposed to be the breakthrough, both for Ukip and Mr Farage personally, who had by then stood for Parliament unsuccessfully six times since 1994.

Contesting the Kent seat of South Thanet – about as fertile Ukip territory as it was then possible to find – he came short by just 2,812 votes. Tired and dejected, he immediately announced his resignation as leader.

But when he arrived at a meeting of the party’s national executive committee, “they unanimously said they didn’t want me to do that,” he recalled.

“So I left the meeting, went and sat in a darkened room to think about what to do, and decided for the interest of the party I would accept their kind offer for me to stay.”

Within months, Mr Farage was embroiled in the battle to be recognised as the official Leave campaign in the looming referendum, initially under the guise of Leave.EU, funded by his friend, the Ukip donor Arron Banks.

The designation was ultimately won by Vote Leave, a cross-party campaign founded by the political strategists Dominic Cummings and Matthew Elliott, who favoured a focus on sovereignty and economic control.

Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Gisela Stuart and others would sell the message. There was no place for Mr Farage. Mr Cummings had crunched the numbers and was convinced the Ukip talisman – and in particular his focus on immigration – would repel middle-of-the-road voters.

Spurned once again by the establishment, Mr Farage was nevertheless determined to play his part. Backed by Mr Banks, he ran a parallel campaign, loudly and bluntly criticising Europe’s freedom of movement.

At one point this provoked a complaint to police for inciting racial hatred after he endorsed a poster titled “Breaking point”, which appeared to show a column of refugees.

In his dawn victory speech on June 24, he said: “We have fought against the multinationals, we have fought against the big merchant banks, we have fought against big politics, we have fought against lies, corruption and deceit.”

Mr Farage later apologised for saying the campaign had been won “without a single bullet being fired”, just eight days after the murder of Labour MP Jo Cox.

His life’s work apparently done, on July 4 he announced his intention to quit frontline politics.

“I said I wanted my country back... now I want my life back,” he said. “I won’t be changing my mind again, I can promise you.”

But if political retirement beckoned, there was one speech he was going to make in Brussels first.

“Isn’t it funny – when I came here 17 years ago, and I said I wanted to lead a campaign to get Britain to leave the European Union, you all laughed at me,” he told MEPs. “Well, I have to say, you’re not laughing now, are you?”

Across the Atlantic, another political insurgency was under way. According to Andy Wigmore, the communications chief at Leave.EU, the friendship between Mr Farage and Trump, 45th US president, came about through a series of alcohol-fuelled chance encounters with key Trump allies during the latter stages of the presidential race.

Either way, when, a week after Trump’s victory, the now notorious photograph emerged of Mr Farage and the president elect grinning amid the golden opulence of Trump Tower, it seemed to encapsulate the political earthquake of 2016.

Nigel Farage poses with Donald Trump in Trump Tower
Nigel Farage poses with Donald Trump in Trump Tower - Nigel Farage

Writing in The Telegraph that December, Mr Wigmore said: “I remember him [Farage] muttering, ‘what will people think?’ Nigel has this uncanny sense of theatre, and, as he prepared to tweet the photo, he paused and gave us a mischievous smile before pressing send.”

The intervening years have been unhappy ones for Ukip, with support evaporating as the party moved increasingly to the Right under a succession of hapless leaders.

In December 2018, “with a heavy heart”, Mr Farage resigned from the party live on his LBC radio show, accusing Gerard Batten, who as leader had appointed Tommy Robinson an adviser, of being “obsessed with the issue of Islam”.

“Damaging Ukip is one thing, damaging the Brexit cause is even worse,” he said. The brand was “so tarnished that it is not able to pick up and won’t be able to pick up the political opportunity that is there staring it in the face”.

Reform UK has been a masterstroke, a new brand that has again caused mainstream conservatism to lurch to the Right.

It has ticked along nicely in the wake of the pandemic and under the leadership of Richard Tice, a successful businessman just a year younger than his mentor. In March, it gained its first MP when Lee Anderson, with the Tory whip removed, switched to Team Farage.

Mr Farage was going to sit out running for a seat himself and was planning to campaign where needed, presumably at Mr Tice’s request.

That’s all changed now. Mr Farage has at least one hand back on the tiller. It’s going to be a bumpier but more entertaining ride.